ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — A little more than a year after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, schools are focused more than ever on how to keep kids safe.
To make sure his district is doing everything possible, Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler agreed to allow Target 8 investigators to try to bypass security in six different schools — while video recording.
Fifteen minutes. That is how long one of our undercover producers walked around North Rockford Middle School without being challenged.
Three of our other testers walked past empty security guard tables. One undercover tester at an elementary school was stopped within 30 seconds, while our second elementary school tester bypassed the same security measures without anyone questioning her.
While this story focuses on Rockford, the issue is broader, affecting every single school district across the country.
In the weeks leading up to the test, Target 8 set down some very specific ground rules for testers about what the purpose of the story was and what was expected of them.
In a meeting involving WOOD TV8’s news director and the six testers, the point was made very clearly that the goal was to not cause any fear or anxiety on any school campus.
Each tester was instructed to walk in the front door of each school and past the front office without stopping and getting a visitor’s pass. If a school staffer confronted them at any time, our testers were told they needed to reveal their identities.
Shibler wrote a letter for each of our Target 8 testers to have with them at all times. The letter explained who they were and what they were doing in the schools. Each of the six testers also had their WOOD TV8 identification badge with them at all times.
When deciding what schools would come under the microscope, Target 8 decided that six crews would simultaneously go into six different schools: two elementary, two middle and two high schools.
Rockford has a total of two middle schools, a freshman center and a high school. It also has nine elementary schools, from which Target 8 randomly chose two. Our undercover testers did not tour their assigned schools prior to the test. More than one tester did not even immediately know where the front doors to the buildings were located.
Every side door that each tester checked at every school was locked.
The test began at 11 a.m. on Jan. 30. The testers all went in at the same time in an effort to be fair to each of the schools tested. Each outcome, for better or worse, provided valuable information to keep kids safe.
Three of our testers were stopped within two minutes, but despite that seemingly short amount of time, only one of the schools responded exactly how Superintendent Shibler wanted: Cannonsburg Elementary School.
Our undercover tester was confronted and came clean, within 30 seconds at Cannonsburg. The key to the success was a vigilant staff, monitors in the front office that show the front doors, a doorbell that sounds each time the doors open and parapros who were given extra security duties after the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
“We don’t let any strange faces in without introducing ourselves and seeing if they’re supposed to be here or not,” a secretary in the main office said to the Target 8 tester.
The two other schools who spotted our testers within that two-minute window — East Rockford Middle School and Rockford High School — which each have permanent security guards. But neither security guard was at his/her post.
At East Rockford Middle School, a physical education teacher stopped our tester only about 50 feet into the school. The male teacher was polite but firm in insisting that our female tester needed to go to the office.
“Do you have one of these?” the P.E. teacher asked, while holding up a visitor pass.
“I do not have one of those,” our tester replied.
“Or do you have a sticker? Did you start in the office? I have to ask you to do that if you could,” the teacher said.
At that point, the tester admitted who she was and what she was doing. She was escorted to the office and spoke to a slightly bemused secretary.
“We’re doing a little security test,” our tester told the secretary. “I’m Susan. Dr. Shibler knows that I’m here.”
“Oh my goodness,” the secretary replied. “A security test and you walked right in. …That’s not good.”
Our tester at Rockford High School told a similar story of what happened.
The security guard wasn’t sitting at her post by the front door, meaning our undercover producer was able to walk through the school for a minute and a half — past the library and down a hallway – before he was confronted.
Target 8 was told after the test that the high school’s security guard said she wasn’t at her post because she was dealing with an unruly student, but she did see our tester walk in. That is how she was able to confront him within a minute and a half. Our tester immediately admitted who he was, and the guard escorted him to the office.
Each of our remaining three crews went undetected for more than four minutes — a length of time Shibler deemed unacceptable.
At Belmont Elementary School, our tester made it down each hallway inside the building before a parapro asked her what she was doing. The parapro was in the hallway working with some students when she asked our tester about her business.
“Did they give you a pass?” the parapro asked.
Our tester replied that she did not have one, but was heading to the office.
While the parapro did not escort our tester to the front office, our tester said that while she was sitting in the office, that same parapro did peek into the office to make sure our tester was there.
Target 8 was sitting with Shibler as the results came in. He heard what happened on speaker phone, at the same time Target 8 did.
When he heard the story our tester told about Belmont, Shibler was visibly disappointed.
“The Belmont one that you just showed, and I listened to, that is unacceptable. Unacceptable,” said Shibler.
Shibler told Target 8 later in the day that there were two secretaries in Belmont’s front office. One was on her lunch break at the time, and the second secretary admitted she saw our tester and should have responded but didn’t.
At the Freshman Center, our tester checked to see if several side doors were locked, which they all were, before entering in the front door.
No one was at the security post when our tester walked in, turned right, and walked down a hallway undetected.
He toured the school for about five minutes before turning himself in at the front office.
When he explained who he was and what he was doing, a secretary asked him which door he came in, and how far he got into the school. Our tester informed her that he could not give her any results of the test before Shibler had heard them, but did say he came through the front door.
The most shocking results happened at North Rockford Middle School.
Our tester strolled past the empty security guard table, and walked through the school for a full 15 minutes. He stopped to look at art work, drank from two water fountains and checked out some empty classrooms before a teacher finally noticed him strolling through the hallway during a passing period.
Shibler again looked visibly disappointed when he heard these results, and immediately asked if our tester saw any security guards while in the school. Our tester said no.
Target 8 was told later that North Rockford Middle School’s guard was on her rounds when our crew walked in and forgot to tell office staff to cover her post. Shibler vowed that will not happened again.
“At North Rockford Middle School, we have a full-time security person there, and for that individual to be able to walk around the building like he did and finally be stopped,” said Shibler, “that, to me, should never have happened ever.”
They were not the results Shibler expected or wanted, but the test made clear the steps the district needs to take.
“I look at this exercise as an opportunity to identify where we have issues that we can improve upon, and I will take this information and use it to improve what we do, what we are supposed to do,” said Shibler. “I welcome this opportunity so we can do a better job.”
Within an hour of Target 8’s test, Shibler had already called a meeting of the administrators in every building and school security guards. He found out what happened in each of the security breaches and made it very clear he was disappointed with the results of the test and that things needed to change.
At North Rockford Middle School, an hour after our tester strolled in, there was a secretary at the front security table until the security guard returned. Ropes had also been put up, leading visitors from the unlocked front door, past the security table and the front office.
Inside woodtv.com: Target 8 surveys several other districts about security
At the end of the test, Shibler pointed out that if a bond proposed to voters passes on May 6, security improvements would have made it impossible for any of our crews to sneak in.
The bond proposal would not raise tax rates because another bond is retiring. Voters are being asked to approve the $76.1 million bond proposal for “capital improvement projects.” The money would be used for security improvements, capital improvements and technology.
One of the enumerated security improvements would be a redesign of every school building so visitors would need to be buzzed in.
For example, Belmont Elementary School, where one of our testers was able to wander through the entire school, would get a new “security vestibule” inside the front doors of the building, shatter-resistant security film on main floor windows, and additions to the school security camera system.